Managing Humans: Everyone Cries

Image credit: Kelly Sikkema
The most valuable lesson I learned as a manager is rarely mentioned in traditional books and online articles about effective management.  It's in the neighborhood of Emotional Intelligence, but very specific. In short, a good manager is ready for someone to cry. Two wonderful managers taught me this lesson. I wasn't the one crying when I learned the lesson, but I have cried at work before and I’ll write an article about that someday.

But let's back up. This is slightly different than my normal advice for new managers or those considering the switch. They often think about larger responsibilities in project management, more meetings, and writing performance reviews as the challenging aspects of being a manager. While all that is true, they're not radically different than what a typical tech lead is already doing.  The specific thing that's a new challenge is having difficult conversations when managing a poor performer. ICs can avoid difficult conversations; managers can't. So my first warning to these people is that management isn't hard until you have a poor performer on the team.

So back to my first hand experience. A challenging employee joined my team early in my management career. It was obvious to everyone but him that he wasn't a good fit for the company. As time went on he wasn't improving, so I had to have increasingly difficult conversations. After one, which I considered a serious verbal warning, my manager asked me if the employee understood how serious the problem was. How would I know?  I assumed yes, but could I even know for sure?  That's when my manager asked me the one question that clarified everything: Did he cry or at least have tears forming and glossy eyes?  He didn't. My message didn't get through.

My manager later had a meeting with that employee to deliver a similar message and indeed that person cried as he predicted. It wasn't my manager’s intention to make the person cry; that sounds mean. But there’s a very fine line between having a difficult yet constructive conversation with someone and intentionally evoking negative emotions. A good manager must be prepared to get close to that line.

The corollary lesson is to always have tissues on hand when having a difficult conversation. I was fortunate to be told this before having what I knew would be a tear jerking conversation. I knew the room I'd be in might not have tissues, so I brought a travel pack in my pocket. It's such a small thing, but I think it helped both of us feel a little less awkward. It’s a vulnerable time that’s only made worse by having snot running down your face.

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